Monday, April 27, 2009

Yes on 1A Through 1F May 19


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The word “compromise” has been jokingly defined as “a mutually disagreeable solution to a problem.” It’s in that spirit that Zenger’s endorses a “yes” vote on Propositions 1A through 1F on the May 19 California special election ballot.

Not that this is in any way an enthusiastic endorsement. The very need for this election underscores just how crazy and dysfunctional California’s government in general, and its budget process in particular, have become. The combination of a highly volatile tax system whose revenues fluctuate wildly depending on the health of the overall economy (and we all know how that’s been lately!), inexperienced legislators hamstrung by a strict term-limit law that forces them out of office just at the point when they’ve started learning their jobs, voter initiatives that have put great chunks of the state budget out of legislative control, an increasingly ideological Republican party that has elevated “no new taxes!” even above the Ten Commandments, and — worst of all — an insane requirement for a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature to pass a budget, have converged to make California virtually ungovernable.

No one is saying this compromise budget plan is a long-term solution to California’s government woes. Almost six years after Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor and promised to “cut up California’s credit cards” once and for all, the state is still borrowing billions of dollars each year to maintain paper compliance with the constitutional mandate to balance its budget. These ballot measures appear before the voters because California’s last cut-and-paste budget, passed 81 days late last summer because it took that long to cherry-pick the Republican caucus for the votes needed to meet the two-thirds requirement, collapsed under the gun of smaller-than-expected tax receipts due to the nationwide recession and the bursting of California’s housing-market bubble. A handful of Republicans finally signed on to badly needed new taxes — albeit regressive ones like sales taxes and vehicle license fees — as part of an overall deal that needs the support of the voters on May 19 to take effect.

The ballot measures are confusing, but in essence the flagship proposition is 1A, which would extend this year’s temporary tax increases from two years to four in exchange for establishing a so-called “rainy-day fund,” a mechanism to force the government to save tax money in good economic times in order to have it available to tide the state over in bad times. Proposition 1B is a companion measure that would start to undo the damage that has been done to California’s school funding as monies supposedly set aside for education have been raided again and again during California’s seemingly perpetual budget crisis since 2003. Proposition 1C authorizes borrowing against future receipts from the California state lottery and makes vague promises of “modernizing” the lottery to increase the state’s income from it.

Propositions 1D and 1E are necessary because California voters have routinely indulged in what’s called “ballot-box budgeting,” setting aside great chunks of state revenue for emotionally appealing programs like children’s health programs and mental health services. These propositions also enacted special taxes to pay for them — a tax on tobacco for the children’s health programs and a surcharge on wealthy taxpayers for mental health — with the result that these programs are flush with cash at a time when the rest of the state budget is starving and other, equally worthy programs are facing massive cutbacks because the voters never froze those priorities into law at the ballot box. The last proposition in the package, 1F, is a modest (too modest, if you ask me) attempt to make legislators suffer personally, in their pocketbooks, every time they’re late passing a state budget.

Opposition to these propositions has come largely from the usual suspects — the radical-Right goon squad on talk radio and the Republican caucus in the state legislature — people who not only don’t fear but actively support the destruction of large parts of the state government, especially public education, health care and anything else that helps working-class and low-income people. A while back the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed column called “Sweden or Mississippi,” lamenting the fact that California voters seem to want a level of government service equivalent to Sweden’s but are only willing to pay Mississippi-sized taxes for it. Not the Proposition 1A opponents, who regard Mississippi as a positive role model for what they think a state government should be and aren’t ashamed to say so.

What’s amazing is how many progressives have been willing to play into the hands of the radical Right and the talk-radiocracy on this one. The Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), after dithering about 1A for months, finally came out against it. So did the San Diego Democratic Club, which argued the issue at their March 26 meeting and repudiated the good-sense position of one of their favorite elected officials, openly Lesbian State Senator Christine Kehoe, in a debate whose lack of contact with political reality approached the delusional.

Kehoe urged the club to approve the propositions because, as a veteran state legislator (she’s served in either the State Assembly or State Senate since she was termed out of her seat on the San Diego City Council in 2000), she knows all too well the difficulty of getting any new revenue out of a dysfunctional budget process that gives a maniacal minority party veto control. “This is the first state budget in 18 years to include new revenues,” she said. “Some people will argue that the spending caps [the ‘rainy-day fund’] will hurt the disabled and elderly, but if we are not able to get the additional revenues we will have much harder gaps to close. This is the best budget we can get with Republican votes. If they don’t pass, future budgets will mean more borrowing and more cuts.”

Unfortunately, because of a schedule conflict Kehoe had to leave the meeting before the club debated the propositions. When the debate actually happened the club members were swayed by the emotional but irrational arguments of Queer labor activist Carlos Marquez and others who focused on the fear that the “rainy-day fund” will force future cuts in education, health care and social programs — and ignored the even deeper cuts in precisely those programs that will happen if the propositions fail. Many club members voted against 1A in the delusion that its defeat will somehow send the legislative Republicans back to the negotiating table to agree to more tax increases to salvage state programs important to Democratic constituencies but not to Republican ones.

Nonsense. The only people who will benefit politically from the defeat of the May 19 ballot measures, 1A in particular, will be the anti-tax zealots in the California Republican party and on talk radio. They will be able to crow that they “protected the California taxpayers” against the threat of actually being required to pay for a decent state government that looks out for its less fortunate citizens — and they will largely have achieved their long-term goal of “starving the beast” and forcing California’s level of government services down to, or even below, Mississippi’s.

It’s a profound comment on the political dilemmas facing progressive voters in this state that we have to choose between a flawed budget reform proposal and an even worse future if it doesn’t pass. But the current state of the California constitution, and especially the two-thirds requirement to pass a state budget (only two other states, Arkansas and Rhode Island, have this insane provision in their state constitutions), gives the Republican party the best of both worlds: the power to control the state budget process without having to accept responsibility for its failures. There’s little point in pretending that Propositions 1A through 1F on the May 19 ballot represent anything more than yet another stopgap “solution” to California’s budget crisis — but they’re a stopgap that’s needed desperately, and needed now.